In 1997 I started working at Last Unicorn Games–a tiny little game company long-since defunct–on the Dune CCG with Owen Seyler. We went on to make the Dune RPG, one of the prettiest and now rarest and most expensive RPG books ever made. in 2000 we were bought by Wizards of the Coast and for a brief time, we were working on a D20 version of the Dune RPG. In other words, a Dune RPG that used the D&D core rules.
The D20 version of the game never saw print, alas, but I’m posting some of my work from it for posterity. A very tiny amount of writing was done, it’s just a curio. And it’s my writing from 15 years ago so it’s amusing (Adventurons! The elementary particles of adventures!) and somewhat primitive. But it’s free! Worth every penny.
When we started on the d20 version of Dune, my boss and I sat down and laid out what we wanted from the line. Owen and I always believed that Dune was perfect for classes and levels. Thufir is obviously a high-level assassin! Paul is the ultimate multi-classed character! We had these conversations before we’d ever started working on ANY Dune RPG. It was natural for us.
We wanted to let players play across many scales. We talked about rules that scaled all the way up from the skirmish level, which is to say a normal RPG, all the way up to planetary battles played out like an RTS. And we knew we could do it. We knew how it would work. We had all the talent in place to do it.
We wanted to make a Lansdraad. A real, living Landsraad. The Landsraad would be our version of Living Greyhawk. People would make their own planets, their own houses, and join the Landsraad. We’d have a website set up for people up upload their info, art. We’d put issues before the Landsraad, just like they did in the L5R newsletter, let people vote.
We seriously thought “there has never been a property better suited for this kind of Organized Play.” And now we were at WotC! We could really do it! Some of that work got started, none of it got done. D20 Dune was canceled. All we have is a tiny slice of one adventure. /sadface.
The Arrakis Adventure
WotC had this incredible mound of market data. They spent a lot of time and energy figuring out what people wanted to do in different universes. So they’d mention a property, like Dune and ask them to rate these statements:
“I would like to make an original character” rated 1 to 5.
“I would like to play one of the existing famous characters from this property.” 1 to 5.
“I would like to play through new adventures.”
“I would like to play through the classic storyline.”
They asked these questions about a wide range of potential gaming properties. Not only things you need a license for like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dune, but stuff anyone could do, like King Arthur or Robin Hood. Amazingly, the same people answered differently for different properties. In other words, the desire to create a completely original character didn’t vary so much from person to person, as it did from property to property! Some properties, people overwhelmingly wanted to make their own stories. Some, people wanted to tell new stories. It was a revelation for us.
Well the data said that people wanted to play new, original characters in Dune, in the Main Storyline with the Kwisatz Haderach and everything you read in the novel, but they didn’t want to play the heroes in this story. They wanted the story of Dune to unfold as written, with their characters as sort of Rosencrantz & Guildensterning around. I believe the data indicated they wanted to have *some* influence on events, but not affect major changes.
It fell to me to figure out how to make that adventure. Initially I thought “man this is going to be a pain in the ass, that’s some pretty specific direction.” But I quickly realized I was completely wrong. As it turned out, it was easy. It was super easy. There’s a ton of amazing content happening right off-screen, in the novel, which they reference. Thufir says “We’ve sent an advance team to Arrakeen to clean out the palace,” YOU ARE that advance team. The first member of House Atreides on Arrakis! “We’re having the devil’s own time clearing out these sabotage devices, but we’re almost done,” because of YOUR work! Duncan mentions sending a team to meet with Stilgar and how well that went. YOU play those characters, the first members of House Atreides to meet the Fremen.
Anyway, we got started on that, never finished it. Hasbro, the literal actual Hasbro, not the Hasbro gamers talk about when they mean WotC, handed down a directive “no more licensed games,” and that was that. There were some other issues, it’s more complex than that, but beyond the scope of this post.
Enjoy reading and wondering what might have been!